By Donna Miles, American Forces Press ServiceSeptember 8, 2006
WASHINGTON (Army News Service, Sept. 8, 2006) - Tens of thousands of Americans in all 50 states and the District of Columbia are preparing to put on their walking shoes during the next few days as they participate in Freedom Walks to commemorate the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and to honor veterans, past and present.
Some 120 local Freedom Walks are being held in the coming days around the country, sponsored by local communities, civic groups, schools, churches and grassroots organizations.
That's in addition to the second annual America Supports You Freedom Walk in Washington, D.C., which begins at the Washington Moment at 6:30 p.m. Sept. 10 and follows a two-mile path to the Pentagon. Last year's event attracted more than 15,000 participants, including family members who lost loved ones in the attacks.
The response to that first Freedom Walk proved to be so strong, particularly among families who called it a healing experience, that officials recognized the importance of extending its reach.
"We knew that we had to share the Freedom Walk with more than Washington, D.C.," said Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs Allison Barber. "And that is why this year, on the fifth anniversary (of the attacks), that the Department of Defense has just thrown open the invitation to fellow Americans" so they can participate, too.
Local communities have responded in a big way and will hold a full range of local Freedom Walks during the upcoming weekend through Sept. 11. White Sands Missile Range, N.M., became the first community to sponsor its local Freedom Walk yesterday, with dozens of its military and civilian employees participating.
No two Freedom Walks are likely to look the same, Barber said. They'll range in size from big-scale citywide observances in Chicago, Oklahoma City, Washington and other cities, to simple, solemn walks like White Sands'.
Some communities, like Aurora, Colo., are planning additional activities to correspond with their Freedom Walks. The city's walk tomorrow will feature country music star Tammy Cochran, who will perform at the Aurora Municipal Center along with Allen Asbury, the Kory Brunson Band and North-40. Joining them will be Iraq war veteran Staff Sgt. Paul Brondhaver, who suffered almost 300 wounds after his convoy was attacked with a rocket-propelled grenade.
Sacramento, Calif., has planned a full weekend of activities to lead up to its candlelit Freedom Walk on Sept. 11. "We expect to have a rousing program that'll culminate a couple of days of wonderful events around the Sacramento Valley," said Bill Jenest, a spokesman for the Sacramento chapter of Operation Homefront, the nonprofit group sponsoring the walk.
Other Freedom Walks will be less structured. In Munster, Ind., participants will begin with a sunset ceremony, praying and listening to entertainment before beginning an informal walk through the Community Veterans Memorial Park. "We're not going to say, 'OK, now's the time to start walking,'" said Frank Darrington, post commander for the Munster Veterans of Foreign Wars and the city's Freedom Walk planner. "We're trying to leave this thing really loose and open so people can do as they please while here."
The American Legion chapter in Milo, Iowa, population 1,000, also is planning a relatively simple event. Its four-block Freedom Walk through the downtown area will end with prayer and reflection at the city park. "We'll have a minister on hand to give a prayer, said Ron Hensel, the walk's organizer and a member of Milo's American Legion post. "There'll be time for speakers if anyone cares to speak."
But regardless of how elaborate or basic the Freedom Walks may be, Barber said, they'll share a common twofold goal: to remember the events of Sept. 11 and to honor the nation's veterans, past and present. "It's that combination of saying 'We won't forget,' and also that we will honor those who have, throughout the history of our country, chosen to defend the freedoms we hold so dear," she said. "The country needs a unifying activity and an opportunity to come together, and that's what the Freedom Walk is."
"(Freedom Walks) allow various people to come together ... for no purpose other than to show support," agreed Jessica Williams, president of Indiana's third chapter of Blue Star Mothers of America, who is helping organize the Crawfordsville, Ind., Freedom Walk. "Yes, we may be going on with our lives, but there's a part of us that will always be affected."
"We wanted to reflect on the events that happened on 9/11 at the Pentagon and the twin towers in New York City, and in Pennsylvania," said Vicki Sarracino, president of the Georgia chapter of Operation Homefront that is co-sponsoring the Atlanta Freedom Walk early Sept. 11. "And we also wanted to renew our commitment to freedom and the values of our country, and to honor the veterans past and present."
Randy Coble, deputy director of public information for Dearborn, Mich., said his city's Freedom Walk will offer a way for people to gather together and reflect. "It's a way to come together and express what we all believe: that we need to remember the victims of Sept. 11 and that we need to make sure our men and women serving in harm's way know that we support them and appreciate their sacrifices," he said.
Bob Batcher, project manager for the Freedom Walk in Norfolk, Va., said a recent visit to Ground Zero in New York reminded him of the importance of events like the Freedom Walk. "I think it's time for people to step up and say we're a unified country," he said. "I harken for the day where spontaneity meant putting a flag on your car. I want us to remember five years ago, when you couldn't buy a flag because so many people were buying them."
Many event coordinators, sponsors and participants said they feel a personal connection to the events of Sept. 11 and the U.S. military. For example, a big turnout is expected in Oklahoma City, which experienced terrorism firsthand in April 1995, when terrorist Timothy McVeigh set off explosives that half-destroyed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building.
In Sebring, Ohio, 9-year-old Colton Lockner immediately considered the safety of his uncle, Reserve Staff Sgt. Brian Joseph, when he read about Freedom Walks in a Weekly Reader newspaper article. Lockner took on the task of organizing Sebring's Freedom Walk as his summer project and expects about 5,000 participants. "(The walk) is to honor (servicemembers) and thank them for what they're doing for our country and to remember the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11," Colton said. "We're trying to get it to be an every-year thing, like a permanent holiday."
At Fort Riley, Kan., more than 500 students at the post's Ware Elementary School, 99 percent of them military children, and 85 staff members dressed in red, white and blue, will carry American flags while participating in their local Freedom Walk. Pat Olmstead, the event organizer and family support monitor at the school, said she expects the Freedom Walk to emphasize a celebration of freedoms that many of the young children's parents are helping protect. Many have watched their parents go off on deployments in Iraq or Afghanistan one, two, even three times, and understand more than most children their ages that freedom isn't free, she said.
Some day the children, many too young to remember the events of Sept. 11, will come to understand what happened to the United States that day and why their parents have been so important in fighting terror, she said. "Some day they are going to realize the price that was paid for their freedom."
"It's just a great time to come out and honor the servicemembers past and present ... and those who lost their lives on Sept. 11 (2001)," said Beth Steinke, president of Operation Homefront-San Diego, the nonprofit group organizing San Diego's walk. "I just think that it's really important, as individuals ... as a community and as a country, to remember that we must always be vigilant and we should always be connected to each other."
More information about the Freedom Walk is posted on DoD's America Supports You Web site. Barber has encouraged groups planning Freedom Walks to write to the Web site to share information about their events.